Vacation blog

Stockholm, day 2

It’s a record – an entire vacation with only good weather. It drizzled a bit in Amsterdam and a bit today, but that counts as good 🙂 Today we went to Skansen (thanks to Caro for the suggestion!) in the morning. It’s the world’s first open-air museum, founded in 1891, where over 150 buildings from all over Sweden have been dismantled and reassembled so you can “stroll through five centuries of Swedish history.”

In the afternoon we finished our tour of the Royal Palace, seeing the Treasury (no pictures allowed) which holds the royals’ crowns, scepters, etcetera, the Tre Kronos Museum, with the history of the original palace which burned down in 1697, and the church where all the royals are buried, dating from the 13th century.

Finally, we had our first good meal in Sweden, in the old town, where the Royal Palace and many other sites are located. Tomorrow we return to reality…

Here’s a sketch from the Palace museum.

And a detail from one of the gravestones in the church. There are lots of skulls and crossbones, some only barely discernible. Many people have walked on these stones over many centuries.

Skansen has a zoo as well. These are a couple of Sweden’s only remaining type of native pigs. They’re doing their best to keep up the population though.

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The capital of Finland was a big change after St. Petersburg. But the weather was lovely again.

Here’s the port with the Evangelical Lutheran Cathedral in the background.

The cathedral was stark in comparison with the ones we’ve seen in the two days we spent in Russia. But the organ pipes were pretty.

Our tour guide told us that Finland was recently named the happiest country in the world. But, she said, we are a serious looking people. There were two more matching guys on the other side of this building. She told us that they represent the four emotions. The first guy is happy, the second sad, the third angry and the fourth fearful. Or, perhaps, the other way around 🙂

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St. Petersburg

We have just spent two days in St. Petersburg. If you haven’t been, put it on your bucket list.. We took a two full day tour (back on the boat between days for dinner and the evening/night) with SPB tours, and because most people just take the cruise company tours, our tour had just 4 people on it. We saw Peterhof, Catherine’s palace, St. Isaac’s cathedral, the church of the spilled blood, took a canal ride, visited the Hermitage. Whirlwind – but every site seemed more impressive than the last. I couldn’t possibly tell you much about any one of them, so you will have to Google..

The other couple chose to visit a different room of the Hermitage, so Lana, our guide, seeing that we didn’t mind walking very fast, took us to twice the usual number of highlights in this vast museum. Buzz shot this racing through one gorgeous room after another:

One of the Tsars collected tapestries, displayed in a darkish corridor so they would fade as little as possible.

Beautiful details in every possible place – these are just doors between two of the hundreds of rooms in the Hermitage.

The Church of the Spilled Blood. In one corner, the stones on which the murdered Tsar fell are preserved exactly where he fell (no, I couldn’t see any blood). The entire interior is covered in mosaics. And I mean every square inch.

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Tallinn, Estonia

Tallinn is the lovely small capital of the former Soviet republic of Estonia. This is the house and office of the president – except that the first female president decided she’d rather live in her house in town with her family. So now it’s just the office of the president. Personally, I wouldn’t turn down an invitation to live here.

The town hall boasts this clock, which even has the correct time.

We visited the oldest continually operating pharmacy in Europe (or in the whole Milky Way, says Buzz). The outside of the building says 1422, but that’s just the first known reference to the business. Nowadays they sell modern products, but there still seemed to be many vials of eye of newt and the like. Hopefully just for show…

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At sea

Great view last night:

We had dinner at the reservations-only venue, Candles. No complaints about the food here! Our day at sea was relaxing and fairly uneventful. Nothing to see but the sea…

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Eight miles (that’s 22000 steps) walked to see five hours  worth of Copenhagen today! It’s a city of only a million. The day was clear, and the crowds not bad. Our tour guide walked us around at a rapid pace, so I won’t try to remember what each of these pics is – they can speak for themselves today 🙂

(Thanks to Buzz for his skill as the family photographer.)

This is from a tee house we were in.  Like a lot of the buildings here, it was once a royal something-or-other.

This is an inlet a few blocks from the ocean.

There are a lot of bizarre statues around town.  This is in a park.

This was once a royal garden; now it is a public park.

This is from a Catholic Church, above the altar.

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Kiel Canal

Heard of the Kiel Canal? We hadn’t… It was constructed in the late 19th century and cuts east-west through northern Germany, so ships can avoid going all the way north around Denmark to travel between the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. Large cruise ships can’t go through it, as there are several bridges over the canal and the ships are too tall to pass under them. Our little Star Breeze (438 feet, 212 passengers) fit just fine. We spent the entire day cruising through the canal.

Old Dutch windmills are good tourist draws, but the modern ones are more useful.

The Star Breeze entering the lock, preparing to go through the 98 km canal. The canal is fresh water, fed by rivers. So the water in the lock is kept slightly higher than the seas. That way the downward pressure when the lock is opened keeps the salt water out of the canal.

A container ship in the lock next to ours. We didn’t see any other pleasure boats in the canal.

A pretty German smokestack.

This little guy joined us for quite a while as we waited in the outgoing lock.

Exiting the canal on our way to Copenhagen.

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Harlingen, Netherlands

Harlingen is in the north of the Netherlands. It’s a very pretty, large town. We are here on Sunday, when most businesses are closed, and it’s a nice change after bustling, noisy, dirty Amsterdam. We visited the only remaining factory where Delft tiles are hand made and hand painted. The gentleman painting the tile above has been doing this for 45 years.

Our tour also included a trip along the dike, built to separate fresh water from salt and provide protection from flooding to a large part of the country, which is 1/4 below sea level.

Originally City Hall, now just another pretty building.

There were several old warehouses which were labeled with the countries the goods came from. This one is Poland, next door was Russia, across the street Java and Sumatra.

After WWII, the residents of Harlingen placed metal plates in the sidewalk outside the houses of residents who were sent off to concentration camps and who never returned…

Someone in Harlingen had beautiful flowers outside their house.

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Doei Amsterdam, hallo Star Breeze

We spent our last morning doing a little shopping. This mall must have at one point been something much more impressive. Buzz took a few pictures of it, planning to use them to model a scene.

There are reputedly 900,000 bicycles in Amsterdam. It certainly looked like there must be 100,000 just parked at the Central Station.

One could spend days just wandering around looking at the architecture. But we are out of time and have boarded our ship and set sail!

Note from Buzz: we were shopping for pj’s, because Buzz forgot his pajamas…

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Artists and Canals

We took a canal tour. These are “dancing houses”. Since the ground is rather unstable, the houses were built on posts, which have settled. In some cases the wooden posts have started to rot over the centuries.  Many houses are leaning into each other. These have been shored up so they won’t topple into the canal. We think…

Here’s a detail on a piling for a bridge crossing a canal. So much ornate artistry!

We went to the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh museum, both well worth a visit. Here’s “The Book Shop…” by Johannes Jelgerhuis, 1820. Speaking of detail, it’s quite amazing how much there is to see in one painting.

And this is Buzz’s favorite piece of art in the whole world!

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Welcome to Amsterdam

We arrived at noon in Amsterdam, after a 6 hour layover in Chicago, found our hotel and crashed for a few hours. Suitably refreshed, we went out for dinner and a stroll. In a ~50 meter ped/bike tunnel we found an astonishing mural made up of six inch fired tiles. Here’s one small section.

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Basilica Cistern, Spice Market, and Galata Tower

We started our final day at the Basilica Cistern. This is the largest of several hundred cisterns under the city, and was built in the 6th century. It is hard to convey the scale of this place with a picture, so here are some numbers. It is over 100,000 square feet in area, and capable of holding 2,800,000 cubic feet of water (that’s 100,000 tons of water). There are 336 marble columns, each 30 feet high, supporting the ceiling. Now there are only a few feet of water in it, but plenty of fish swimming around. A walkway has been constructed so visitors can walk through the cistern.

We went next to the Spice Market, where all sorts of things are sold, and chose to buy our Turkish Delight from the one shop owner who did not chase us down the corridor, shouting at us!

A two hour boat ride on the Bosphorus included this mosque, right next to the modern bridge spanning the river.

Finally we went up the Galata Tower for views of this beautiful city, which we hope to return to some day.

Thanks for reading!

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Istanbul – Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Grand Bazaar and Hagia Sofia

We landed in Istanbul at 7 AM, and decided to take a tour in the morning before being dropped off at our hotel.

The first stop was at the Blue Mosque, and here’s one very small detail on the ceiling of this amazing building.

The Topkapi Palace was a residence of the Ottoman sultans for 400 years. At the end of the Ottoman Empire, almost 100 years ago, the palace became a museum. It is in amazing condition, and in addition to the many buildings and courtyards, we saw priceless jewelry and other artifacts. Sadly, tourism is way down as people are afraid to visit the city. But for us, this meant lots of sightseeing with virtually no queues.

Our last stop on this tour was the Grand Bazaar. It’s the first indoor mall…

When we told our guide we were interested in pottery, she showed us to a very nice shop. All of the shops are desperate for business, and it’s pretty stressful to walk along as they follow you, shouting the whole way. So it was great having the tour guide advise us where to go. As is the custom, they gave us apple tea as we looked at their wares, and we bought a set of tea cups and a platter.

After we checked into our hotel, we went to the Hagia Sophia, the world’s largest cathedral for nearly 1000 years. Built as a Greek Orthodox church, converted to a mosque, and now a museum, it is a fascinating mix of Christian and Islamic art.

Many astounding mosaics at the Hagia Sophia…

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At Sea

In cruise lingo, At Sea is a day cruising, without stopping at any port. But the dictionary also says it is “to be confused; to be lost and bewildered” so the term sounds funny to me…

We spent the day following the coast of Turkey north and then going through the Dardanelles toward Istanbul. Wendy visited the spa, Buzz read and took pics of the scenery. We ate more great food. The ship was very comfortable to hang out on. It only holds 148 passengers, and on this sailing there were only 115. It does have the smallest pool I’ve ever seen – one lap equals almost one stroke.

There were many castles to defend the strait as we passed from the Aegean into the Sea of Marmara. This one looks like a heart shape from this vantage point, but is apparently in the shape of a three leaf clover.

One of the crew members who maintains the ship badly injured his hand. Fortunately we were close to the coast so he could get to a hospital quickly. The process of transferring him from the ship to this Coast Guard boat was quite complex. We hope he will be ok.

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Kusadasi, Ephesus and Mary’s house

Kusadasi is our second stop in Turkey. We went first to the house where legend has it that Mary was installed by the Apostle John after Jesus’ crucifixion, and lived in till her death at a ripe old age (about our current age, actually).  The house is up high on a hill.  We are told that there were those who wanted to harm Mary (Romans) and so she was kept hidden there.  Three popes, at least, have been here and can attest to this being the very spot.

Kusadasi means “bird island”. Which confuses visitors, because it is not an island, it is very much on the mainland. Below is the actual bird island that the city was named after.

Ephesus was a port city, but now it’s 4 miles inland, because back in about 700 A.D. it became marshy and malarial and then covered by several meters of silt. No one knew anymore where it was, although it is a very important biblical city, until engineers for the railroad happened upon it in the late 19th century. (Paul got kicked out of Ephesus and later wrote a letter to the Ephesians…) Archeologists have been excavating ever since, and they have only uncovered a third of the ancient city. This is the reconstructed library, which is 80 percent original (the rest being concrete, where the marble hasn’t been found). It was the third largest library in the ancient world (Alexandria had the largest).

This little guy doesn’t need to hunt mice, as the keepers of Ephesus put out cat food and water in bowls. There’s a box for donations for the cats…

Here’s the theater at Ephesus, which held 24,000 people, and is still used for concerts – the acoustics are great even by modern standards.

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Bodrum, Turkey with gulet schooners and the underwater archeology museum

Bodrum has been a port town since at least the 11th century B.C. One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World was here – the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus (turns out the word comes from King Mausolus), built in the 4th century B.C. But in the 15th century A.D., the Knights of Saint John – same guys who ran Rhodes, our last stop – dismantled the mausoleum to build their Castle of St. Peter.

Our guide in Bodrum described the town as the St. Tropez of Turkey. Americans mostly come here on cruises, but many wealthy Europeans have second homes here on the Turkish coast. These boats, called gulets, are made right here in the area.

Local wildlife…

The Museum of Underwater Archeology is housed in the castle. Contrary to our initial guess, one doesn’t go underwater to see the museum. It is rather the foremost museum in the world devoted to finds from shipwrecks, dating back as far as the 14th century B.C. This chalice is from a 3400 year old shipwreck, which also held a gold scarab inscribed with the name Nefertiti – the ancient Egyptian queen.

The castle grounds feature samples of almost every flora found in the Mediterranean.

After our aerobic hike around the castle and museum, we are chilling at the ship this afternoon. Today is the second day that the sports deck is open (because the ship is anchored, not at the dock). But I (Wendy) have already crossed Kayaking in the Mediterranean Sea off my bucket list – the pic is from Sunday in Mykonos – and so my water sports plan now is to go sit in the jacuzzi.

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Santorini and donkeys

Santorini is a “candidate for the lost kingdom of Atlantis” according to the guidebook. It’s a tourist trap with incredible vistas. The towns on the island perch atop steep cliffs.

There is a long, winding set of wide shallow steps that you can climb to get to the top of the cliffs rimming the island.  A popular tourist thing is to either take the funicular up or ride a donkey up.  We took the funicular up and walked down.  These are two of the many donkeys available for riding.  (If you walk, you get to step through donkey poop the whole way.)  Notice the wire muzzles on them.  Do donkeys bite?

At the top of the cliff is a community with more white boxy houses with blue trim.  This one seemed the most elegant:

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Mykonos and the Delos archeological site

This is Mykonos, a Greek island in the Cyclades.  Like other Greek islands, it has white, cube shaped houses and blue windows/doors/domes.

There is a story people tell about how Jackie O brought a female pelican to the island to mate with a pelican named Petros who had become a mascot on the island.  But it turned out that Petros was also a female…  Anyhow, Petros lived for 29 years and was apparently stuffed after he died.  We went looking for Petros, who was supposed to be somewhere on the island. We thought we had found him – see below – and I was taking pictures of the stuffed pelican when he suddenly moved.   Oops, it turned out that this pelican is alive.  Just after I took this shot, a woman entered the red door behind the pelican, and when the door closed, his beak got caught in it. (But he pulled it out and seemed to be ok.)  Notice how tall he is – about 3 feet.

I (Buzz) just finished a class at Iliff on the philosophical search for happiness (Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, etc.)  But then we found happiness right there on Mykonos…

From Mykonos, we went to Delos a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to look at ancient ruins from about 1000 BC through the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. The twin gods Artemis and Apollo were born here, and our very knowledgeable tour guide told us the story of their birth, there at the center of the Cyclades Islands (and believed to be the center of the ancient world, as well).  Below is the remains of a house, with its marble entrance still intact.

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Kerameikos and the coast of Greece

Kerameikos is the most ancient cemetery in Attica.  It was also an area occupied by potters, and it sat both inside and outside the Athens city walls.

There are very few tourists at the archeological sites.  But we did find this one fellow at Kerameikos:

We caught our boat at the port in Athens and are currently out at sea.  This is a view off the rear of the boat as we were leaving the bay area.

I overheard a young women who had recently graduated from Princeton telling her mother that her boyfriend at college was a great guy but she wasn’t so sure she could really stay with him.  He isn’t from a very good family and he has like zero connections in the world…   At Iliff we call this White privilege.


Foodie update: Beet risotto with horseradish and fennel for my first cruise dinner. It was lovely, but sadly I didn’t take a pic.


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Our new digs

We’ve been trying to get the place fixed up, but it’s hard to find a good contractor in Athens…

The garage is almost done, though: 18 cars.

We have some problems with the guest house being a bit overgrown…

Now, I don’t want any juvenile remarks about this one…


Speaking of juvenile, tomorrow I’ll do the commentary…


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1st class food and the mess that is Athens

“Business First” food on United is really something else. I guess when you pay that much for a plane ticket (we used flight points to upgrade), they figure they should give you something besides just a trip across the ocean and a seat that reclines. Dinner consisted of:

  • Dish of hot roasted nuts.
  • Pick your own warm roll from a selection.
  • Appetizer of salami and melon (“You don’t want your appetizer? Can I get you another drink?)
  • Tossed salad. (Would you like another roll?)
  • Entree – Shrimp and bream fish with lobster sauce, lentils, and julienned vegetables; Buzz had chicken with white beans, greens and onions.
  • Cheese and grapes platter. (You don’t want your cheese? Can I get you something else?)
  • Ice cream with choice of hot fudge, caramel, whipped cream, nuts, strawberries, cherries. Or all of the above.
  • And of course all the alcohol you wish. We each had a beer…
  • Breakfast 6 hours later.

– Wendy

Athens is pretty down and out.  Many of the store fronts are empty and/or abandoned.  There is graffiti everywhere; there must be an army of kids with spray paint cans that come out every night.  There are piles of garbage bags that apparently have not been picked up in weeks or months – with men my age picking through the stuff and pulling out junk, presumably to sell.  Many of the shops that are open are selling stuff that looks like it was rescued from one of the garbage heaps.  -Buzz